This past Friday, I purchased a Big Green Egg. It was a decision nearly a year in the making, and I thought I’d share my experience of the purchase, assembly, set-up, and initial cooking results with you.
For anyone who doesn’t know, the Big Green Egg is an oval-shaped Kamado style, ceramic/stoneware cooking system that uses charcoal as fuel and is designed to work as a grill, a smoker, and an oven. Unlike conventional charcoal or gas grills which are typically constructed of thin metal which are therefore not able to retain heat nor maintain a steady temperature very well, the BGE uses thick ceramic in the construction of it’s walls and domed lid for excellent heat retention and temperature stability. Used properly, these properties make the egg suitable for a wide variety of uses from grilled or smoked meats and veggies to brick oven pizza.
I have been toying with the idea of a ”BGE” since last May when I moved into the home I currently occupy and left my old, worn-out Weber propane grill behind. Two things made this a difficult decision for me.
First: Charcoal vs. Gas (Propane); I loved my Weber grill! It was a four-burner model with individual controls for each burner. The gas jets ran from front to back so it was easy to create an indirect cooking space of up to half the grilling area by simply turning off any two adjacent burners and leaving the other two ignited. My experience grilling everything from hot dogs to pizza has taught me that indirect cooking is essential to successfully cooking anything on a grill, and, while I was intrigued by the BGE, I was very skeptical about achieving this with charcoal, which obviously doesn’t respond to a ”control dial”. Gas is also very fast from on to done. It certainly wins in the speed category. With these two advantages, you may be asking why I’d even consider a charcoal grill at all. One word, ”FLAVOR!” I will discuss this more in-depth later on. My philosophy about the role of cooking and food is changing at this stage in my life, and I’ll discuss that as well.
Second: Expense; either choice was going to be costly! I mean well north of a grand, costly! Having been used to (and spoiled by) the four-burner Weber, I couldn’t force myself to downgrade to a different brand or a three-burner model. While a smaller cooking surface and fewer burners would certainly meet my needs (the BGE has a significantly smaller cooking area than my Weber had), I wasn’t willing to compromise on quality construction and a name I knew I could trust. I owned my Weber for 15 years! It gave me outstanding performance and I consider their products to be the highest quality. Big Green Egg won’t even advertise their prices online, so I had to go to an authorized dealer to find out that the model I wanted was going to cost $999.99 just for the egg. This didn’t include a stand or any accouterments. All told, the package I ended up with cost me $1295.36 out-the-door, including tax. The weber model I considered was pushing $1500, so, yeah, I needed to wait until I could justify (rationalize) the outlay on what is essentially a splurge.
Once I crossed the bridge mentally about spending the money, I really wanted to make sure that I was going to get value equal to my expectations. To me, this is the critical idea with any expenditure of any resource. Ultimately, as Thoreau says, “the true cost of an item is how much of your life you’re willing to exchange for it”. I believe that maxim is true with the caveat that while it is certain that one can never retrieve the quantity of life traded for any purchase, one can receive quality in exchange, thus achieving “value”. I want all of my trades of time to produce value. If I’m going to end up with less of quantity, I want to also end up with more of quality.
Having never used a Big Green Egg, and having no personal friends or acquaintances from whom I could receive first hand testimony, I relied upon my research on the internet and at a couple of resellers. This is an important step for me because I wanted to make sure my expectations were realistic. Resentment and frustration result when unreasonable expectations are allowed to take root. As I mentioned earlier, I had first hand experience with a Weber propane grill and I knew pretty much exactly what to expect. Do you wonder why I chose not to replace my worn-out Weber with another one? There are a couple of reasons:
First, I don’t have as much space for a grill as I used to have. My deck out back measures eleven feet by twelve feet. The deck I previously had for use with my Weber was at least sixteen by twenty. The Weber’s footprint is one and a half times as large as the Big Green Egg and a Weber cannot be placed diagonally into a corner without taking up significantly more space. I wanted to preserve as much seating and standing area on the deck as possible. The large model BGE I purchased tucks right into a corner and even with the optional side tables I purchased, takes up only forty-two inches of space in each direction. This leaves plenty of room to walk around the deck, access the grill, and have a couple of Adirondack chairs and side tables set up without feeling too cramped.
Second, I became enamored with the idea of charcoal, generally, and the versatility of using charcoal in a BGE, specifically. There is no doubt that propane is fast. It is relatively inexpensive to use also. A refill on a propane tank is around twenty to twenty-five bucks. I never kept an accurate count, but I imagine I could get a minimum of ten to twelve grilling sessions per tank. A twenty-pound bag of the recommended premium chunk charcoal (not briquettes) for the BGE is almost thirty bucks, $28.99 to be exact. I expect to get only eight to ten uses out of each bag. I’m sure that running out of charcoal will be just as much of a hassle as running out of propane, though finding premium charcoal at some odd hour of the night will undoubtedly be more difficult than finding a propane refill. But there is virtually universal agreement that food cooked over charcoal just tastes better.
Consider this: for my fortieth birthday, my ex-wife and I went to Chicago to celebrate. We ended up dining at the Weber restaurant just off of Michigan Avenue, where all of the meat is cooked on Weber grill. When I ordered steak, the waiter asked me if I wanted it prepared over charcoal or gas. He suggested charcoal, and said ninety-per cent of the patrons chose charcoal because of the superior flavor. ‘Nuff said!
Aside from the expectation of more flavorful cooking, I also was ready to experiment with different cooking techniques and cuts of meat. I wanted to try some things I’d never been able to do on a conventional grill. The BGE is an excellent smoker and slow cooker. It can be used for Boston butts, ribs, beef brisket, roasts, turkey, chicken, seafood, etc. as a low-temperature smoker. These were things I’d never been able to cook on my Weber, and I wanted to try something new.
The BGE also is apparently an excellent brick oven for pizza and other baked goods. I am familiar with grilled pizza on my old Weber. There’s no other pizza quite like it, so the BGE will have to be pretty damn spectacular to top that, but I know it’s an option. I used to be able to cook pizza crust directly on the grid on my Weber, then flip it, turn off the heat under the dough, add toppings and close the lid. The indirect side burners finished off the pizza and melted the toppings together. That method will be very hard to beat. With the BGE, since it is charcoal, I’ll have to purchase a pizza stone and use it with an add-on called the “plate setter”, and cook the pizza similarly to how it would be done in an oven, but with the added bonus of the charcoal smokiness.
I’m at a point in my life where convenience is not the most important thing anymore. When there were seven kids around, convenience and speed were non-negotiable essentials, now, I have time to savor some things in life. Food preparation and enjoyment is one of the things I plan to slow down enough to really savor. Toward that end, I hope I’m through with eating fast food in a car anymore. I’m not saying I won’t still succumb to fast food, but I’m either going to sit down inside or bring it home to eat it.
At any rate, my decision turned on the belief that the food I cook on the BGE will taste better than what I could cook on a gas-type grill, and that although it’s going to take more prep time to achieve that result, I’m ready and willing to be conscious and conscientious about that time. I also swallowed the idea that there was going to be a learning curve for me to successfully retrain my grilling habits and practices from gas to charcoal.
I made the decision to purchase the Big Green Egg, but I still wanted to get the best deal possible. Big Green Egg is a US company, headquartered in Atlanta, but I believe most of the construction of the units is done in Mexico. The proprietary design, quality materials, and fanatical following allow BGE to charge a premium for its products. They do not advertise pricing online, nor do they allow resellers to do so on the reseller’s own websites. I wanted to get the best deal possible and I was still trying to decide between a large or medium Egg.
Ultimately, I stumbled upon my decision about where to purchase by going into my local “Ace Hardware” store in Indian Trail, NC. I went in to buy some small washers for my oldest son’s longboard assembly. I noticed the Big Green Egg placards and advertising and asked one of the store personnel if they were, in fact, an authorized dealer. She assured me that they were and that they gave customers “excellent deals” on BGE purchases.
A couple of weeks later, which turned out to be last Friday (March 21st), I called and spoke to one of the employees at Indian Trail Hardware who told me that they do in fact offer package deals on purchases and told me about their current available promotion. I could purchase a large Egg at $749 (which is $250 off the retail) if I also purchased the “Nest” (a rolling stand), and the “Plate Setter” at full price. I knew that I wanted both of these items anyway so that was a deal to me. The same offer was made for a medium egg, but I was only going to less than $200 on the purchase and the large allows for cooking roughly double the amount of most items (eight steaks as compared to four, etc.). A large it was!
When I arrived at Indian Trail Hardware, I went to the display area and saw Eggs set up both in large wooden tables (a $500 purchase) and in the Nest ($164). I opted for the Nest as it was less expensive, provided mobility, and preserved the compact footprint that was important to me for conserving deck space. Most of the display models also had small side tables added on which were valuable as prep areas and also provided some hooks for hanging grill tools underneath. I purchased a set of them, called Table Mates, for an additional $105.
The only other purchase I made for my initial set up was of a cast iron grid for searing and grilling steaks. The BGE comes with a stainless steel grid that is well made and fine as far as it goes, but having cooked with cast iron skillets for many years, I was familiar with the excellent heat retention properties and I thought the wider spacing would provide better searing and more aesthetically pleasing “grill marks”. So, I shelled out another $65 for that. A very nice, knowledgeable young man named Matthew helped with my questions. He explained that he’d owned an Egg for two years. He eased my mind about the need for a cover, (you don’t need one), the cast iron grid (makes better steaks), and offered advice about smoking Boston Butts and Baby Back Ribs. He was extremely low-key and very helpful.
Matthew gave me the option of taking home a pre-assemble BGE right from the display area. I asked him how long it would take to assemble my own and he told me that he assembles them in 45 minutes, but that it usually takes over an hour for most people. He said that the assembled ones are cumbersome and asked if I had a way to roll it from my driveway to the back deck. When I told I did not, he said I’d definitely need help getting it out of the car, walked to the back and lifted onto the deck. I opted to assemble my own. I have a large kitchen floor that opens directly through double French doors to the deck so I figured I could take my time, watch some NCAA basketball in the process and roll the completed Egg out into position when I finished. Before leaving, I purchased a bag of Big Green Egg brand chunk charcoal and some starter blocks. BGE grills do not use briquettes, nor do you ever use lighter fluid with them.
My total purchase including the large model BGE, the nest, the “table mate” side tables, the plate setter, the cast iron grid, a twenty pound bag of charcoal, a box of starters, and a couple of box end wrenches I would need for assembly ran me exactly $1295.36. I know, I know. That’s a ton, but with a lifetime warranty, I figure to get my money’s worth.
Matthew and I loaded everything into the back of my Element and I headed home with my new Big Green Egg for an afternoon project, visions of ribeyes dancing in my head.
Once home, I carefully unpacked the Element and the various boxes being careful to leave myself enough space to sprawl and spread out as I completed the assembly. I visited the Big Green Egg website at: http://www.biggreenegg.com for some excellent videos on assembly. The site is awesome! It provides video and written instruction on everything from assembly to cooking techniques and recipes.
I have provided photos of the routine for each step of the process. I didn’t set a stopwatch, but I wasn’t in a race and it probably took me about 2 hours from start to final set up out on the deck.
The photos above show the nest assembled without the casters and then fully assembled with casters in place. The casters have lock down brakes to keep the Egg from rolling once it’s in proper position. The assembly was very straightforward and easy, Very detailed and illustrated instructions are provided. This part took maybe 15 minutes.
The part of the assembly shown by the photo above was perhaps the most “challenging”. A separate box contains the banding straps that are attached to the Egg and which serve to hold the upper dome to the lower half of the unit. The instructions were fine and precise and the website video for this part of the assembly is great, but I constantly needed to refer to the diagrams to make certain that the various pieces were facing the correct way and not upside down. Also, my choice to install the optional side tables had to be kept in mind. The instructions don’t mention side tables and it would be possible to construct the entire Egg, cinch down the banding straps and then realize there is no way to attach the table support brackets without disassembling the whole damn thing.
Fortunately, I took enough time to think through how the table brackets needed to fasten. The mounting studs for the brackets have to be pushed through the “egg side” of the strap out through the pre-drilled holes in the bands and brackets, then fasted with the provided acorn locknuts. One has to be careful to put the brackets right side up as well and this took some careful study of the illustrations because there is not a lot of immediate distinction and no markings on the brackets themselves for “L”, “R” or ⬆︎,⬇︎.
The photo above shows the bracket completed with the table mounts, hardwood handle, and hinge all attached and finger tightened, ready to be place on the corresponding halves of the Egg. I probably spent at least forty-five minutes on this part alone.
After completing the bands, it was time to unpack the egg from the main box. As the photos above illustrate, the components are nested inside one another and are well cushioned with cardboard and packing materials. I just set the smaller pieces like the fire grate and stainless steel grid aside to get to the larger halves. Getting the halves out of the box is a two-person job unless you are much stronger than I. Unboxing the pieces and setting them aside for the next step(s) of assemble was relatively quick. I spent another five to ten minutes on this stage.
The next step required lifting the lower half of the egg into the nest. I locked the brakes on the casters and lifted the lower piece into place. At around fifty pounds, it is rather heavy, but it slid into place easily enough. The ends of the nest “arms” have rubberized end covers that serve to both stabilize the egg by gripping the dimpled outer texture and also prevent marring the finish by the action of metal on ceramic. Once in place, I affixed the lower band onto the lower half and roughly centered the handle on the base of the unit. I then rolled the assemble outside for the final assembly to cut down on the weight I’d have to roll and lift over the transom of the door and down the few inches to the deck level.
Once outside, I lifted the domed upper half of the Egg into place making sure that the upper band with the handle on it fit around the outer circumference of the upper half. My OCD kicked in here and I spent quite a few minutes jiggling and moving the pieces in small increments to line everything up just so prior to tightening the bands on with a wrench. All together, these steps took about twenty to thirty more minutes.
Here, you can see the hinged halves. Each bands (both upper and lower) is held tight by a single threaded bolt near the rear hinge of the unit. The directions call for the nut to be threaded on to this bolt so tight that as the ends of the band are pulled together, the bolt actually bends. The instructions amplify how important it is for all of the hardware to be securely tightened prior to releasing the spring guards on the hinge to prevent injury or damage to the unit. I took my time and went around each acorn nut and hinge nut making sure everything was good and snug. It was sweet to lift the lid for the first time.
I finished the side tables by mounting them onto the brackets that were already in place. I also secured the cast iron chimney vent to the vent stack with the supplied gasket tape. This piece is only used while cooking and works in conjunction with the sliding stainless steel door you can see at the bottom front of the unit to achieve the desired cooking temperature. At this point I was ready to put charcoal in the firebox and light this bad boy up! I had steaks ready to go!
It was nice to get the charcoal lit and to start to enjoy that unique aroma. The Big Green Egg charcoal is 100 per cent carbonized oak and hickory and made my deck smell like I was camping! I absolutely love that smell. That, gunpowder, and leather, and my nose is in heaven!
I was a little apprehensive about grilling the first steaks because I had become accustomed to a gas grill and by all accounts of those to whom I served steak, I was pretty darn good at it. I followed the lighting instructions and waited patiently for about twenty minutes for the charcoal to be lit for full coverage of the cast iron grid. The temperature had climbed to 600 degrees on the thermometer mounted on the front (which is higher than recommended for the first couple of uses to prevent damage to the gaskets that “seal and separate” the upper and lower halves), but I knew this would be the perfect searing temperature. When I placed the meat onto the iron grid, they sizzled in protest as I quickly shut the lid to retain the heat. I knew my first attempts would be trial and error by necessity but, I knew the maxim, “If you’re looking, you’re not cooking!” so I trusted that keeping the lid down would work best to retain moisture, get that good charcoal smokiness, and prevent flare ups from too much oxygen getting to the charcoal flame.
I ended up cooking the thickest cuts about four minutes per side to get a good, barmy, charred sear on the outside, and then another two to three minutes per side to get to medium rare. These were thick steaks; about two inches for a great ribeye and an inch and three-quarters for a beautiful new york strip. They were just a touch on the rare side when I first pulled them off, but another minute or two on the still hot coals and they were absolutely perfect! In fact, they were the best steaks I’ve ever eaten anywhere in my life! (And that includes Ruth’s Chris and the Capital Grille).
Not too shabby! I will be posting again about my first experience with smoking a Boston Butt and my first chicken grilling experience. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this and that it’s answered any questions you may have about purchasing and setting up a Big Green Egg.